News & Events
Discover Mid-America April 2005
Pull the plug on a failed project
Spring arriving means that
soon the Missouri will get its big gulp, the blast of water that comes
as the snow pack in the Rockies thaws. The spring rise will arrive here
a little early due to a series of dams upstream. And as that water flows
through, a series of human-made, technologically advanced structures will
stifle, stopper, calm and control that water as long as the weather
doesnt interrupt human plans.
But it does. It always does.
This is why, I argue, that the dams and dikes we are convinced
are essential for our lives must be breached.
Those who have never thought of the Missouri River as anything
other than a dangerous stream will criticize. Floods! Drought! Lack of
Perhaps, but we will all be better off when we have a free-flowing
stream running through our valley. Floods will become less devastating.
Water tables will rise. Wildlife will return. Fishing will be unequalled.
In short, we return to paradise.
Let me begin my argument with what environmental historian
Donald Worster argues in Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the
Growth of the American West (Pantheon: New York, 1985):
Control of water means control of people. Those entities
that control the water control the people who depend on that water
in this case, multinational corporations and their servants, the Army
Corps of Engineers and the Interior Departments Bureau of Reclamation.
None of these, including Cargill, ADM, Monsanto, etc., are democratic
in their origins or are they democratically inclined. We cant tell
them to walk away or manage the river differently. They will do what returns
most profit from an investment of our taxes profits that have not
and will not returned to the national treasury close to what its
taken to form and manage the river so far.
Rarely does this river see a barge, that water-freight wagon
for which men have re-formed this watercourse from a wide, slow-moving,
braided stream to a swift canal. The 720-mile long river channelization
from just north of Sioux City, SD, to St. Louis, MO, took from 1880 to
1942. The goal was to create a way for water to compete with railroads
after rails brought an end to the shallow-draft steamboat an expensive,
unreliable and dangerous way to transport freight, passengers and mail
on the river. They built it, and the barges never came.
Robert Kelley Schneiders argues in Unruly River: Two
Centuries of Change on the Missouri River (University Press of
Kansas: Lawrence, 1995) that the Corps of Engineers effort to control
the river was for the express purpose of opening it to deep-water barge
traffic. Yet, those changes have made the river less amenable to deepwater
barge traffic. Despite the argument that barges can transport more, more
efficiently than rail, the Missouri along its channelized length is too
fast, too narrow, and too untrustworthy to make for reliable, efficient
Only in times of cheap fuel prices can barges do on the
Missouri what rail can do in the valley. And ultimately, rail has now
come under heavy competition from trucking, and trucking has also become
an adjunct to rail. Railroads are more interested in long-haul transport
than in short-stop-and-pickup hauling as what might be found along grain
terminals in the valley. Using trucks to get grain to rail has become
the standard. So much so that no wheat has been transported along the
Missouri since the mid-1980s. A diminished amount of corn, fertilizer
and concrete are moving there as well.
A look at the figures tells the story. The Corps of Engineers
tracked 3.3 million tons of traffic on the Missouri in 1977, when there
was a devastating flood along the lower reaches. It has declined nearly
every year since, barely topping 1.1 million last year, mostly concrete.
One might ask what benefit to agriculture Missouri channelization
has achieved. Well, none, really. In Missouri, land totals gained from
taming the stream dont equal those inundated by reservoirs in North
and South Dakota. In addition, that was, by far, the best agricultural
land in those states. Moreover, since much of agriculture in Missouri
is now agribusiness under the control of medium and large corporations,
one has to ask if those who lose (anglers, hunters, birders, cities seeking
clean water, and those who lose property and life) outweigh those few
who win in the scheme to keep the Missouri under control.
Corps construction of a narrow channel has made cities
and individual developers feel comfortable building in the floodplain.
Yet, the Corps has created a more dangerous river than was here before.
Revetments, dikes, levees and river straightening have increased the rivers
speed. These structures keep the river from spreading easily and shallowly
across its plain in times of high water, making floods especially damaging.
In addition, dams upstream allow nutrient-rich silt to settle
to the bottom of reservoirs. Farmers have come to rely on synthetic fertilizers,
which seep into the water supplies (above and below the ground). Sandbars
have become nearly non-existent; and bends that slow the water are straight.
Islands have become part of the mainland. All of this has created an environment
inhospitable, if not toxic, to numerous avian, the land and aquatic species
species once formed a vast and lucrative network of tourist, angling,
birding and hunting resources and can again.
By kicking the Corps and the Bureau of Reclamation out,
we take control of our money. We take control of our river, and do with
it on the local level what we want. We will not hurt for water
as much will flow then as now, and less devastatingly. The intake structures
we have now can easily be reengineered, replaced and paid for in a few
years with what the feds have take for the profit of a few. Moreover,
the upper basin states will be freed from the political control of the
lower basin states, and gain some control over their river, control they
have not had since the middle of the 19th century.
Its a matter of freedom in the long-term. Living with
and become part of the environment is far more cost effective than allowing
a few hold all the power. The benefits are many. As the spring washes
the land clean again, its time for a new start. Lets think
Patrick Dobson is a journalist, poet, and freelance writer and editor based in Kansas City, MO. He publishes and edits the online literary magazine, the poetrysheet. His award-winning columns, editorials, and articles have appeared in PitchWeekly, eKC, and Discover Mid-America. His poetry and short stories have been published in the pages of The Kansas City Star, Review, Friction Magazine, Mid-America Poetry Review, The Same, and Thorny Locust. He is now pursuing a doctorate in history at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
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